Updated after Biryulevo: Is Navalny a Revolutionary? If So, Which One?

Navalny-cartoonA few days back, I wrote this note: Is he a reformer, a radical, a revolutionary? Indeed, what do these kinds of distinctions mean? A reformer wants to change and ameliorate the existing system, a revolutionary wants to change it. In that context, it seems hard–at least, if we believe his rhetoric–not to see Navalny as a revolutionary. Following this thought, and in the hope of being able to say something about the man that hasn’t already been said in the umpteen articles, profiles and posts about him, I ruminated in a trilogy of articles for Russia! magazine, about the contrasts and similarities one might be able to see between Navalny and three icons (or devils) of the ‘official’ Russian Revolution: LeninTrotsky and Bukharin. Times change, but the underlying realities of power and the human condition do not. The key issue, ultimately, will be whether his focus will be of tearing down the old order or working with elements within it to change it. After all, a revolution need not be built on an uncompromising campaign of destruction, it can be negotiated–and likewise what may seem like a revolution in its sound and fury may, as the USSR discovered, actually replace one autocracy with another…

Since, then, the events of Biryulevo, in which the murder of a Russian man by a man presumed to be from the Caucasus sparked rolling race riots in Moscow, have also given Navalny the chance to speak out on race issues. It’s long been known that under the cheery liberal demeanor there lurk some attitudes which, to be honest, are much more traditionally and recognizably Russian. Certainly his initial responses, both through re-tweets of racist messages and then tweets of his own did not bode well. On his blog,he then proceeded to blame the riots on the Kremlin above all for encouraging and allowing the influx of workers and migrants from abroad and also from the North Caucasus (and let’s remember that these are Russian citizens; it would be like a mayoral candidate for New York wanting to bar African-Americans from southern states). He then went on to advocate a popular vote on tougher visa regimes for Central Asians, admitting graciously that “not every Central Asian is trafficking heroin” (no, they are more likely to be doing the miserable jobs no one else wants), but still blaming them for drug addition, crime and disorder.

Navalny is a politician. He is also a Russian and prey to many of the same unpleasant prejudices that even otherwise enlightened and humane Russians often do. (The irony is that Putin, while undoubtedly a Russian state nationalist, actually appears–as near as we can tell–to be less of a racist than Navalny. Go figure.) I can see the potential political merits of positioning yourself as the tribune of the angry and disenfranchised Russian lumpenproletariat (and judging by the images, those mobs don’t get much more lumpen). I can also accept that there are issues of crime, alienation and even intimidation connected with living near particular concentrations of migrants. Navalny is not one to encourage pogroms, to be sure, but at the same time, by sympathizing with the rioters, by presenting the paroxysm of violence that ripped southern Moscow as the desperate cry for help by victims, then he is at the very least giving violent racists aid and comfort.

It would be just too, too easy to suggest a pseudo-Nazi salute here...

It would be just too, too cheap, glib and easy to suggest a pseudo-Nazi salute here…

I wonder if, returning to my revolutionary comparisons, this may prove to be Navalny’s equivalent of Lenin’s decision to seize power in 1917; a moment when political opportunism begets its own original sin. By seizing power in a country so unready for a proletarian movement, Lenin virtually ensured that a Stalin (or at least some kind of authoritarian modernizer) would arise, despite Bukharin’s hopes for NEP. In other words, the political compromises he made then–and to win the Civil War–actually doomed what positive potential there may have been in the Bolshevik movement. If Navalny becomes similarly seduced by the idea that he can rise to power, and do reformist good, by harnessing this embittered, angry racism, then he may well find that he cannot so easily tame these energies. Instead, they may possess him: the hungry ghosts of the Black Hundreds, of General Skobelev (the butcher of Geok-Tepe), of Pamyat, all await the summons…

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3 Comments

  1. Dr. Galeotti – once again hitting the nail squarely on the head.

    Reply
  1. Johnson’s Russia List :: 2013-#186 :: Wednesday, 17 October 2013 | Johnson's Russia List
  2. Mainstreaming Russian Nationalism - |

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